ALBANY, Ga.—Shayla Jackson knocks three times before slipping a card with voting information under the blue-painted doors of apartments at Wild Pines, a complex tucked behind Albany State University.
As a canvasser for the nonpartisan New Georgia Project, a group dedicated to registering Black, brown and young voters and getting them to the polls, she’ll spend her day knocking on dozens of doors of registered Georgia voters.
Jackson’s shoes, phone and hat are the same color, a warm red that clashes with the pamphlets in her hand, a jewel tone purple. The pamphlets are full of information about voting deadlines, ways to find out details about candidates and a number to call for a ride to polling locations.
Several years of canvassing, and a previous job in customer service, have prepared Jackson to talk to voters. Some are frustrated that things never change, even if they vote religiously. She is persistent.
“It’s that drive to get one vote in, and several votes in,” she said. “Maybe this next door will be that person that actually changed their mind, that person actually goes (to the polls) because I came to the door.”
All eyes are on the Peach State, which turned blue in 2020, giving a win to President Joe Biden as well as a slim U.S. Senate majority to Democrats after a runoff two months later. Georgia elected—for the first time—a Jewish senator, Jon Ossoff, and a Black senator, Raphael Warnock, to represent the state.
Again in 2022, with Warnock seeking reelection against Republican Herschel Walker, Georgia is a battleground for the U.S. Senate, along with close races in Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The outcomes will determine whether Democrats can hold onto their 50-50 Senate majority.
Getting enough voters to the polls will be key to avoiding another runoff, this time between Warnock and Walker.
Two Albany voters encountered by Jackson recognize the importance of the moment. Earlene Jones and Shewana Toson, who are in the middle of cleaning their home, said they plan to vote early at the Albany Civic Center.
Toson said this is the first time she’s been able to vote in a while, because she has stable housing. She said she’s worried about the economy and wants Democrats to push for higher wages, arguing that the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 in most circumstances—the federal minimum—is not enough to get by.
“Everything is higher,” she said. “Pay increase is something that I would like to see.”
She said that if the races go into a runoff, she plans to return to the polls, noting the importance of this election.
“Voting is a right,” Toson said.
Abortion, inflation, paychecks
Georgians interviewed by States Newsroom in late October across the state said that they plan to vote again should a run-off occur. They also listed the issues that matter most to them: abortion, inflation and higher wages.
The race is incredibly close. Warnock, who beat Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler in 2021 by 93,272 votes, is trailing Walker by less than 1 percentage point, according to the Real Clear Politics polls average.
But this election is different. In two years, the coronavirus has left nearly 34,000 Georgians dead, inflation has hurt Democrats and Biden’s popularity is at an all-time low.
The state has gone through major changes, with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signing into law a six-week ban on abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Another change in this election is an overhaul of voting requirements by Senate Bill 202 following the 2020 election. The law limits absentee voting, enacts new voter ID requirements and makes it illegal for volunteers to hand out food and water to those waiting in long lines to cast their ballots.
‘Send them packing’
U.S. Senate Republicans who joined Walker, a former University of Georgia football star, on the campaign trail argued that Georgia is a red state. They said Warnock’s election was boosted by campaign contributions from blue states like New York and California.
“We need one seat in the Senate to make certain that we send them packing, and we know that it is going to come from right here in Georgia,” U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said to supporters during an Oct. 24 campaign rally in Dalton.
Burt Jones, a Republican member of the state Senate, a 2020 election denier, and candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor, urged supporters to vote and encourage others to get to the polls.
“Places of that nature want to flip the state of Georgia, and we cannot let that happen,” he said, referring to New York and California.
Walker at the rally acknowledged that “it’s been a tough race,” referring to the amount of money Democrats have spent in the Senate contest.
Warnock has spent the most on digital political ads, about $13.8 million, according to Ad Impact. Walker’s campaign has spent $2.4 million, according to Ad Impact.
Georgians are getting flooded with campaign ads, as campaigns and outside groups are pouring millions into the state, nearly $145 million, according to Open Secrets.
For the 2022 election cycle so far, Warnock has raised $86.5 million, and has spent $75.9 million, according to Open Secrets. He has $22.7 million cash on hand.
Walker has raised $31.6 million, and spent about $24 million, according to Open Secrets. He has about $7 million cash on hand.
Despite the heavy cash influx from Democrats, Walker often tells his supporters that “God has prepared me.” During campaign stops, Walker talks of his faith, and how he was cleansed by God from his past.
His campaign has been roiled in multiple scandals, ranging from reporting that he was abusive to his ex-wife, to claims he paid for abortions for two women, despite saying he opposes abortion. Walker denies the allegations about paying for abortions. States Newsroom has not independently verified those accounts.
At the rally, Walker leaned into his religious faith. “Because of the grace of God, I realized that we all fall short,” Walker said. “God had to wash you in the blood, so you can see where you going to.”
He didn’t detail any policy issues at this rally, but spent most of the time telling fables, one about a bull who wants to get to pregnant cows across a field, only to discover that the cows are in fact bulls.
He told another story about a man who enters an elevator to heaven and hell where it seemed liked hell was one big party, and so Walker warned his supporters to not let Warnock “take you down that elevator to Hell.”
Warnock is a senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a historic church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also preached. Walker criticized Warnock’s view of Scripture, questioning whether Warnock understands the Bible.
“We’re going to send Raphael Warnock, back to church to ask for forgiveness for what he has done to the people of Georgia,” Blackburn said, riling up the crowd.
Semi trucks passing the rally along Interstate 75 honked at the crowd of 50 supporters holding signs that read “Run Herschel Run.”
Blake Wells of Dalton said he attended the rally because he is concerned about inflation. He said he is on a fixed income and receives disability benefits through Social Security.
He said he also worries about a medication that he needs every four weeks. Medicare covers some of the cost, but he still has to pay $150 out of pocket, he said.
Bringing in Obama
Congressional Democrats have also traveled to the state to stress to Georgians how important the race is for keeping control of the Senate. And they’ve brought in some of their biggest stars, such as former President Barack Obama, who in Atlanta campaigned with Warnock and Democratic governor candidate Stacey Abrams.
Rep. Mondaire Jones, a New York Democrat, spoke at an Oct. 24 rally in Atlanta hosted by Warnock’s campaign.
Standing near cloth chairs set along a wooden roller-skating rink, and a disco ball that bathed the room in neon twinkling lights, Jones said voting rights and reproductive rights hinged on Georgia.
“Democracy runs through the great state of Georgia,” he said.
Rep. Troy Carter, the lone Democrat in the Louisiana congressional delegation, said hope will not win the election, and that Democrats need to continue to get everyone out to the polls.
“What happens in Georgia affects the rest of the world,” he said. “We know we have an opportunity to control the U.S. Senate.”
Carter said the House passed several pieces of legislation that have stalled in the Senate, such as voting rights and an expansion of the child tax credit.
“We pulled people out of poverty,” he said, referring to the expanded child tax credit. “We gotta bring it back. Failure is not an option.”
The temporary expansion of the child tax credit helped lower child poverty by 40%.
As Warnock approached the stage, he jokingly asked if anyone had a pair of roller skates. He urged supporters to take advantage of early voting, and warned that voting on Election Day might be too late.
ProPublica, Georgia Public Broadcasting and NPR found that nonwhite Georgians have historically waited for hours on Election Day, as the number of polling places located in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods have been reduced.
Warnock was careful to not mention Walker’s name at the rally, only referring to him as “my opponent,” and argued that Walker is not qualified to be a U.S. senator.
“I see it as an extension of my work and my ministry as a pastor,” Warnock said about his own role as a senator.
He added that he understands not everyone is religious and that he believes in the separation of church and state, but said that his work as a pastor has helped him in the Senate.
“What I’ve learned by being a pastor is that you can’t lead the people unless you know the people, and you can’t know the people unless you are walking among the people and have felt their hurts and their pains and their concerns,” he said. “You gotta carry that with you if you’re going to be an effective leader.”
During his time in the Senate he’s sponsored 56 bills, a majority of which are focused on health care. Most recently, he was able to help include provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that would cap prescription drug costs for seniors on Medicare at $2,000 a year and cap the cost of insulin for them at $35 a month.
As Warnock made his way off the roller rink toward a press gaggle, he stopped with any attendee who approached him, often shaking hands, both clasped together, or snapping selfies.
During the press conference, Warnock was asked if he had underestimated Walker, if he felt youth voters were not turning out enough and what would a loss in Georgia mean for the future for Democrats.
Warnock said he has traveled to several college campuses across the state, to reach out to young voters.
“There has never been a great movement in this country without young people,” he said.
Warnock said that he trusts the people of Georgia to make the right decision for the Senate race, and he’s hoping that they will look at his record and decide to send him back to Washington.
But even if he loses, he said his work’s not done.
“My work has never been connected to a position,” he said. “It’s a project. This is my life’s project.”
Pathway to the majority
At an Oct. 26 rally for Walker in Cleveland, in northwest Georgia, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, addressed the crowd.
An 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in late October that Graham has to testify before a special grand jury into the investigation of whether former President Donald Trump and others tried to influence the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia.
Graham told rally goers that he’s tired of Warnock and Ossoff canceling out his vote, and that Georgia has an opportunity to “change the course of this country.”
“If we can win in Georgia, it’s over for them, do you realize that?” he said. “That the pathway to the majority in the Senate runs through the state of Georgia.”
This time, Walker does not tell the story of the bull wanting to get to a pasture of cows, but again told the story of the elevator that goes to heaven and hell. After his speech, his campaign set up a tent where supporters could meet with the candidate.
He did not take questions from the press or hold a press conference.
Walker’s faith is what brought Denise Murrer, of Cleveland, for the first time to a political event.
“The way this country is going,” she said when asked why. “It’s just going in the wrong direction.”
She said being able to meet with Walker in person, she was able to tell he was genuine about his beliefs.
“I could feel his heart, as a Christian, that’s what spoke to me,” she said.
Cindy Adams was waiting in line to meet Walker. Her grandson was holding her hand, but squirming and wanted to leave.
Adams is raising him, and said she and her husband live in an RV because they can no longer afford their home. She’s a retired teacher and her husband is a retired captain in the fire department.
“The economy is what did it,” she said.
Adams, who opposes abortion, said she misses the Trump administration and believes that if Walker makes it to the Senate, it will move the country back toward Trump.
“It’s going to put us back where we probably were when Trump was there,” she said.
More door knocking
In Albany, burgundy sand is scattered across a porch that canvasser Jackson approaches, ready to knock on another blue door for the New Georgia Project.
The organization does not advocate for a particular candidate or parties, but was started by Stacey Abrams in 2014 as a way to get non-voters registered and inconsistent voters to the polls. She’s no longer part of the project.
In the corner is a sandcastle mold and plastic shovel, covered in the reddish dirt, beach toys belonging to the children of Constance Loud.
Loud said she plans to vote early, adding that she’s concerned about Georgia’s new abortion law.
“That should be something women choose,” she said about reproductive health care. “It should be our right.”
As another voter, Kerteria Brown, gets out of her SUV, a radio ad disparaging Walker as a candidate can be heard. Brown said she already voted, and while she wasn’t familiar with Warnock, she did not want to vote for Walker.
She’s mostly watching the governor’s race and is rooting for Abrams.
“Everyone got to vote,” she said. “When I vote, it’s a big change for me, too.”
Another neighbor, Lawanda Henderson also voted early, saying that it’s important, but she’s worried about turnout. She thinks people might stay home because they are discouraged about inflation and the high cost of living.
“We’re not making the money to afford to pay for our mortgages and stuff like that,” she said.